Thursday, February 25, 2010

Everybody Loves Z

There’s a new buzzword floating around Cleveland-centric sports message boards amid the Cavaliers’ recently snapped three-game post-All Star break losing streak.

That word is “zarma,” as in “The loss to Denver was zarma, man.”

It took me a few moments to figure what the hell this meant, and then it hit me like big, stupidly obvious thunderbolt: Trading Zydrunas Ilgauskus for Antawn Jamison upset the team’s delicate karmic balance, resulting in said losing slide.

Straw-grasping callers to local sports talk radio shows have focused on the lurpy Lithuanian’s absence as a major reason for the Cavs’ ills, even when that sickness stemmed from poor free throw shooting, mediocre guard play, porous defense and integrating a new player into the rotation.

The outcry and concern about “Big Z’s” possible return to the Cavs grew with the skid. Fans asked sympathetic radio hosts worried questions about the buyout from Washington (made official this afternoon), and fretfully wrung their collective hands at the possibility of another team signing Z for the rest of the season. A non-story about the NBA trying to block’s Z’s return to Cleveland only exacerbated the nail biting.

Although I’ve spent a good portion of my 35 years as a proud member of this notoriously fickle fan base and should know better, I’m still a bit mystified by the sudden Z love. It seems the guy’s gotten more attention from fans in a week than he’s received in his 11-year career.

Now, I like Z and think he can be a nice piece on a championship ballclub. He’s worked well in tandem with Shaq, and the Cavs will need his length, jump-shooting ability and locker-room presence in the playoffs. But I’ll be damned if Z’s going to make or break a title run, and his absence certainly isn’t the reason the team has gone 1-3 to start the second half of the season.

Cleveland loyalists’ reaction to the trade is especially strange considering all of the complaints levied against the big man in the twilight of his career. People (including this humble blogger) were miffed when Danny Ferry chased Z through an airport in the summer of 2005 to sign him to a lucrative five-year deal.

In the years since, phrases like “slow-footed” and “black hole in the post” were tossed around to describe Z by both media and fans. Those rightful criticisms have largely been forgotten since the trade, and replaced by such nebulous terms as “chemistry” and “karma.” This outlook is skewed to the point where I think folks would rather have Z than the 20 and 8 secondary scorer this team desperately needs. What’s going on here?

I think the issue is two-fold, and endemic to the tribulations of Cleveland fandom. Firstly, Z is one of “our” guys – a genuinely good, humble man who has gamely fought through several foot surgeries to be a stalwart in the Cavs’ lineup. We love players who have gone through fire and remain loyal to Cleveland, an attitude that befits our toughened, underdog mentality.

Ah, but that mentality has a cutting edge. When we have high expectations for one of our teams and they struggle for however brief a period, we look for any reason as to why this year won’t be “the year” once again. Call it rampant paranoia, or protecting our frayed psyches from crushing disappointment.

I like to call it the “Other Shoe Syndrome.” When’s it going to drop and dash our hopes once again?, Clevelanders think. We know that piece of footwear won’t be some soft-soled Hush Puppy, either, but a scuffed, black Doc Marten shit-kicker the size of a Brinks’ truck etched with the names of all of our past sporting failures.

Our pale, likely-to-be-returning center is currently wearing that ugly shoe. Will some malign, otherworldly force stomp our dreams by sending Z to Denver, Dallas or elsewhere?

No, because there’s no such thing as “zarma.” Go Cavs!